Witchy Winter – Snippet 10

And his magic worked. Hecate’s dog would watch. The dog would warn him.

Notwithstanding Schmidt emerged from Reuben Clay’s office with the oilskin packet under her arm and a tiny smile on her face. Luman stepped easily into her pace — he had longer legs but she walked with more energy, and it evened out. Schmidt turned back toward the docks.

“You disliked killing that bat, Luman,” she said. “Don’t deny it, I saw the expression on your face.”

“I deny nothing. I prefer magic that doesn’t require me to kill.”

“It could be worse,” Schmidt said. “One of the early Wallensteins, I think old Albrecht’s grandson Helmut, went to war with Acadia. Only then they called it La Nouvelle France. And he was losing, so he swore an oath to his All-Father that if the All-Father brought him victory, Helmut would make the greatest sacrifice he could — he would sacrifice himself.”

“And did he win?”

“He won the war, and it was obvious he’d won because the gods intervened — portents in the sky, Valkyries fighting his battles for him, the dead rising to march, and so on. So he duly proceeded with the sacrifice. Only his wife — his best wife, as I believe he had more than one — wanted to join him in Valhalla, so first he sacrificed her. At her request. Hanged her, then ran her through with a spear. Because the two gates to Valhalla are death in battle and death as a sacrifice to the All-Father, you see. Then he hanged himself and his son impaled him.”

“People will do strange things to go to heaven,” Luman said.

“That wasn’t the moral I intended, Bishop Franklin.”

“Was the moral that the Germans of Chicago are insane?” Luman asked. “As I recall, after Albrecht’s death, they burned the flesh off his corpse and distributed his bones around to the German settlements to bring them good luck. At least, that’s what they told me when they showed me the thigh bones sunk into the mortar of the eastern gate of Waukegan.”

“The moral,” Notwithstanding Schmidt said slowly, “was that you should feel relieved you don’t have to kill anything bigger than the occasional bat. And also, next time, don’t let your reservations show on your face. That rather undermines the terrifying effect we’re aiming at.”

She was right.

They walked in silence for a few steps.

“I don’t suppose you really intend to make that Hansard rich,” Luman said.

“I’ll fill his pockets for a short while.”

“Ah.” Luman considered. “You’ll keep him on the company’s black payroll for awhile, and then cut him off, and what will he do? He’ll have to keep cooperating, or you’ll publish his contract and the accounts, with signed witness statements from Oldham, and he’ll be kicked out of the League. Or stoned.”

“You will also provide signed statements. But I believe they prefer to stab their malefactors in the back, or poison them.”

“You don’t love the Hansa.”

“On the contrary. Were I not so committed to the Ohio Company, I might be trading as one of their number. They do a great work, St. Adam’s work, dispersing capital through trade and driving down prices and profits for the benefit of all.”

“Would that be St. Adam of Bremen?”

Schmidt snorted.

“But you subvert your precious saint’s freedom of the market,” Luman said. “Don’t you feel guilty?”

“Means to ends,” the director said. “Means to ends. A unified empire at peace will be the greatest market the world has ever seen.”

“I believe all their Grand Muftis are men,” Luman pointed out. “I’m not sure the Hansa would take you.”

“I slit the throats I had to slit to get where I am in the Imperial Ohio Company, my boy. I’d have done the same as a Hansard. Very well, my wizard, you’re thinking like a good company man now, like a director must think. But let me add nuance to your plan.”

They emerged in a triangular dirt plaza surrounded by warehouses. Schmidt turned them unerringly toward the river.

“Tell me, Madam Director.”

Schmidt chuckled. “Yes, all in all, I believe I like that title more than anything the Hansa could hang around my neck. Consider this, my Balaam: what if we first have Oldham, one article at a time, little by little, drive down the prices we pay for Parkersburg’s surplus goods?”

“There will be discontent among the merchants,” Luman said. “Slowly increasing.”

“Until what?”

He considered. “Until Clay tries to get out of his contract. Until he tries to sell to the Ophidians again.”

“And how do you handle that eventuality?”

“Kill him. Oldham’s a good man with a knife, or he could hire someone.”

“That is one road. Me, I prefer owning a man to killing him.”

“In that case, you pay Reuben Clay more. And tell him it’s his problem to solve.”

“Excellent.” When Notwithstanding Schmidt smiled, deep wrinkles formed at the corners of her eyes. “Of course, we more than make up for the extra we pay him with the cuts in what we pay the others. Repeat that several times.”

“Parkersburg more desperate. Clay more complicit. The record looks worse and worse for him, because he’s been getting richer and richer by betraying his own.”

“How does he get out?”

“He could flee.”

“He’d have to run pretty far, to get away from his own people.”

“He could come clean, throw himself on the mercy of the League, tell them everything. Make restitution. Hope for mercy.”

“The Hansa can be merciful. Do you think he’s the kind of man who would do that?”

“No.” Luman shook his head slowly. “But if he tries, my spell will alert us.”

“And the last thing Reuben Clay could do is turn to us for help,” Schmidt said, “which would be excellent.”

“Is this what they mean when they say business acumen?” Luman asked.

Schmidt laughed. “Out here in the Ohio? Yes. Blackmail, threats, wheedling, and hard-knuckle ball, all played like chess, only if the loser of the chess match had to be put to death.”

“Are you going to buy all the Hansa towns?” Luman asked.

“Not even the Emperor has that much money. But I’ll buy some of them. And our soldiers aren’t really following us to attack the Hansa.”

Luman tried to think like the most calculating and bloodthirsty chess player he could imagine. “They’ll raid Adena.”

“And Tawa, and the others. But they won’t attack the mounds, they won’t waste their effort trying to capture castles.”

“They’ll burn food.”

“And warehouses and docks.”

“Plow salt into fields.”

“I don’t know whether that really works,” Schmidt said.

“We should experiment.”

One last turn brought them in sight of the docks. “It’s not too late, my Balaam,” Schmidt said. “This is an English Hansa town, but I’m pretty sure that cart over there is selling pork sausages.”

Luman’s stomach turned. “You know I can’t.”

“Such a curiosity you are, Luman Walters. You bribe, conjure, and backstab like a good Christian, but you eat like a Jew.”

“It’s not a religious scruple.” Luman had explained this before; Schmidt was teasing him. “The Memphite grimoire from which I learned insisted that certain spells will not work for an eater of pork.”

“Abstinence is hard.”

“Abstinence is easy.” Luman snorted. “Not drinking liquor and not eating pork are nothing compared to achieving a broken heart and a contrite spirit.”

They strode along the dock. Her traders, seeing Schmidt coming, prepared the Joe Duncan to cast off. Ira Oldham stood on the planks beside his luggage, awaiting any last-minute instructions.

“Spells from old King Solomon?”

“So they claim.” Luman shrugged. “They work. And that’s all you can ask from magic, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so. I suppose this explains why half the spells you know are love charms and the other half are cures for impotence. These are the things people actually want done for them.”

“Madam Director, I’m wounded,” Luman said. “Those techniques occupy no more than one third each of my repertoire. I also know how to remove warts.”

“Shame about the pork, though,” Schmidt said. “The pig is truly a tasty animal.”

“Bigger shame about the wine.” Luman grinned. “I do it for you, Madam Director.”

The director laughed. “For your loyalty, then, my Balaam, I’ll give you a hint.”

“A hint?”

“I did indeed once know a man named Joe Duncan. He was not my lover, but my hireling.”

“An employee of the company?”

“Not even close. I hired Joe Duncan . . . to commit a crime.”

“What sort of crime?” Luman felt shocked.

Schmidt laughed. “Means to ends, my Balaam.”

Luman Walters found himself deep in thought as he approached the mooring place of the Joe Duncan.